Back in 1997, the Fourth of July wasn’t so festive

This housing unit on Conant was sliced in half by a tornado that whipped through town in 1997.

This housing unit on Conant was sliced in half by a tornado that whipped through town in 1997.

By Charles Sercombe
Seventeen years ago, there was little to celebrate during the July Fourth holiday.
That’s because in the late afternoon of July 2 in 1997, a tornado — or something like it — ripped through town in a matter of minutes, damaging hundreds of houses and buildings and knocking over at least 500 giant trees.
Fortunately, there were no deaths tied directly to the storm, but one man died of a heart attack while clearing out a fallen tree.
For about three days most of the city did not have power, and residents were under a curfew — meaning if you wanted to celebrate the Fourth in a bar or at a friend’s, you had to get out of town.
State police were on hand to help enforce the curfew.
The tornado, or what may have been straight-line winds, mostly passed through the center of town. It had come along I-96 from the west and continued east to the Grosse Pointes.
Witnesses said shortly before it hit, the sky turned a green-yellow. While neighborhood damage was limited to trees being uprooted and falling on houses, some businesses suffered serious damage. The worst hit was the former Allen Lumber Yard on Conant and Holbrook, which was totally wiped out and never rebuilt.
Hamtramck was caught unprepared for the emergency. The police station was without power until the county brought in an emergency generator.
The tornado experience has remained seared in the memory of many.
Sophie Raginia remembers it well.
At that time Raginia was living on Trowbridge near I-75 and had a front-row seat, so to speak, of the windstorm rushing in.
“It got so quiet and then you heard the roar,” she said. “I was so scared.”
After the winds died down, a hailstorm followed. Afterward, she ventured out.
“Half the trees on our block were down,” she said. “We had some beautiful trees go down, majestic.”

Many large trees were uprooted and fell on houses during the tornado. It took weeks to clear the mess and repair household roofs.

Many large trees were uprooted and fell on houses during the tornado. It took weeks to clear the mess and repair household roofs.

For three days, she lived with no power, and couldn’t run water nor flush the toilet.
Raginia, who now lives in the Hamtramck Senior Apartments, said it reminded her of living in a Third World country where that kind of living standard is the norm.
“Some people live like that all the time,” she said. “You can empathize with people.”
School Boardmember Alan Shulgon also remembers the day well. He was in his car on Holbrook, just outside of the former Polish American Century Club.
“I was moving backwards and my foot was on the brakes,” he said.
After it passed, Shulgon went inside the Polish American Club to see if everyone was all right. The building wasn’t touched, and inside patrons already had candles lit.
Some didn’t realize the full extent of the storm’s force. A few went outside and turned around and said: “Hey, the trees are gone.”
It took weeks to clear out the trees and repair the roofs.

Not just an ordinary day in Hamtramck.

Not just an ordinary day in Hamtramck.

A grassroots organization, Save Our Parks, stepped in  and raised money and tapped into other sources to begin replacing the trees.
The new trees will never grow to the size of those that were lost, namely because those trees should never had been planted in the first place.
So, say goodbye to what was once a unique canopy that some of our residential neighborhoods enjoyed.
And count your blessings that we can enjoy this holiday weekend without being restrained by a curfew.


8 Responses to Back in 1997, the Fourth of July wasn’t so festive

  1. Kamal Rahman

    July 7, 2014 at 4:56 pm

    It was raining lightly but rather calm; I picked up my wife from Wayne State and stopped at Murry Auto Parts to pick up a pair of wiper blades. I spent about 5-7 minutes in the store – paid for the items and headed towards the exit, then I noticed the parking lot was completely dark and store window started to bend, shake and knocking stuff on the floor. wind noise was deafening. Manager screamed to stay away from the door and window. For a few terrifying moments my wife and I could see Farmer Jack carts flying into cars in blinding lightning, which struck electric pole behind McDonald’s number of times. After everything ended we headed out, came near Allen Lumber on Conant and Holbrook. The whole lumber store was on the street; paint, nail, you name it. We moved on to the underpass, which was flooded. We turned around and took Jos Campau underpass and went home to see whole neighborhood was full of mess. Luckily our home survived intact. That is one day my newlywed wife and I will never forget.

  2. Enell Miles

    July 9, 2014 at 11:48 am

    I remember this day as well. I was 17 years old and I was packing my things for my family reunion. All of a sudden we heard the winds and a LOUD thunderous roar!!! Looked outside and it was pitch black, we tried opening the door and the wind blew it right back shut. After we saw how serve the storm was and how many trees were knocked over, we knew it would be a LONG night, no fans, just miserble heat. THANK GOD the next day I left for 3 days to go to my family reunion, when I returned to my Mom’s house all the power was on and some of the trees were removed, but that is one family reunion week I will never forget!!!!

  3. Bob Skwara

    July 19, 2014 at 4:20 pm

    I can recall the destruction of the tornado that struck Hamtramck on that day. After seeing it on the local news, I drove to Hamtramck with my stepdad from our home in Sterling Hts to view the damage. Although now deceased, he was a proud member of the Cardinal Mercier Council K of C formerly on Conant and was concerned about the building. Other than Allen Lumber Yard which was lost, the K of C facility sustained substantial damage. The roof over the hall was torn off the building and looked like a huge crater hole in the open sky. Glass windows in the front were blown out and a canopy that was at the hall entrance ended up twisted around a tree on the next block (Norwalk). Just in front of the windows, a statue of Jesus that was placed in front of the building stood in place-untouched! The statue was transferred from the former St Augustine Church located in Detroit at Davison & Justine St. Almost immediately, the Brother Knights banded together to repair, renovate and reopen the building just a few years later. Both my stepdad and I enjoyed the camaraderie with his fellow Knights on Saturday afternoons at the Mercier lounge. Just shortly after he had passed on, the building was eventually sold.

  4. Carolyn HinesTaylor

    August 10, 2018 at 2:01 am

    Calm before the storm

  5. Carolyn HinesTaylor

    August 10, 2018 at 2:14 am

    The summer of July 2,1997 I’ll never forget

    that day I thank God my 8 children made through the storm darkness all around black &red skies 1 tornado split into 2 coming from the West the winds mighty and strong the sound of a freight train heading are way winds 70 miles a hour dancing in our yard only 3 minutes of twisting and dancing in yard walk right thru garage and taking the rooftops, windows,and shaking the whole house and playhouse in matter of minutes

  6. Adam Maciejewski

    February 11, 2022 at 12:44 pm

    I was in town that summer and recall this day very well. I was in a karate studio and the sky got very dark and green. I have never witnessed anything like it before. and when it was all over it was an absolute disaster out side but the sun was shining and the weather was beautiful.

  7. Joseph zieleniewski

    April 7, 2022 at 7:18 am

    My mother and I lived at 9717 conant when it came and the entire 2nd floor of the store next to us fell on our building I was dozing off on the living room couch when my mother yelled and I got up and looked out the back door window and I saw the tornado with all kinds of debris swirling around and I grabbed my mother and pushed her into the basement just as it hit

  8. Michael Ochab

    July 2, 2022 at 1:32 pm

    80 foot tee smashed our garage on Gallagher but hey we got a new garage – very scary 2 minutes lotta Hail Mary s on my knees and my mom was right – Tornado could and did Hamtramck- she died with smile on her face she was right!

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